According to a study, global life expectancy increased by 6.2 years from 1990 to 2021. However, the corona pandemic led to a reduction in global life expectancy between 2019 and 2021, write researchers led by Simon Hay from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in the journal “The Lancet”. In their study of the global burden of disease, injury and risk factors, they list Covid-19 as the second leading cause of death in 2021.

In 2019, the most common causes of death were the same as in 1990. “In descending order, these were: coronary heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lower respiratory tract infections,” says the study. However, the corona pandemic shifted this order. According to the study, in 2020 Covid ranked third among the most common causes of death, and in 2021 it even came second, ahead of stroke.

What increased life expectancy – and what didn’t

Due to deaths from Covid, global life expectancy reportedly fell by 1.6 years between 2019 and 2021. However, there were clear regional differences: In Southeast Asia, East Asia and Oceania, life expectancy fell the least due to Covid by 0.4 years, and the greatest reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean at 3.6 years.

According to the study, a decrease in deaths from intestinal infections such as diarrhea contributed to the overall increase in global life expectancy from 1990 to 2021. This is responsible for an increase of 1.1 years over the period. “The second largest impact on the increase in life expectancy is due to the decrease in deaths from lower respiratory tract infections, which accounts for 0.9 years of gained life expectancy from 1990 to 2021,” the study says. The researchers also cite reduced mortality from strokes and coronary heart disease as central factors.

“Our study paints a nuanced picture of global health,” IHME co-author Liane Ong is quoted as saying in a statement from the institute. “On the one hand, we see the monumental successes of countries in preventing deaths from diarrhea and stroke,” she explains. “At the same time, we see how much the Covid-19 pandemic has set us back.”

Absolute global life expectancy is not mentioned in the current study. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that it increased by a good 6 years between 2000 and 2019 – from 66.8 to 73.4 years.

Method and data

The study is based on mortality estimates for 288 causes of death in more than 200 countries and territories. This was based on more than 56,000 data sources, such as autopsies, censuses and cancer registries. The estimates for Covid were therefore derived from analyzes of excess mortality due to the corona pandemic from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2021. Overall, the study is based on the expertise of more than 11,000 employees from over 160 countries and territories, the article says.